The Lady Vanishes (1938)

October 26, 2006

Does anybody remember that 2005 Jodie Foster film Flightplan? We saw it in the theaters one weekend when my mom and grandmom were in town for a visit, mainly because it looked like the one all of us were most likely to enjoy. It was pretty good, but the real reason I bring it up here is because I remember discussing with H at the time how it seemed a lot of movies in that same vein (i. e., where the protaganist’s sense of reality is challenged and the viewer doesn’t know if it can be trusted or not) were all of a sudden coming out at once. lady2.jpgWell, it turns out our challenges to Flightplan‘s originality were well founded, but rather than comparing it to contemporary films, we should have been looking back almost 70 years earlier to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes. When watching this 1938 film recently, I was surprised to find myself quite familiar with the story. While not exactly a remake, Flightplan certainly seems based on this earlier film, sharing the same basic plot and borrowing heavily from its storyline. I may have thought the Jodie Foster movie was pretty good, but the early Hitchock film, I’m happy to say, was even better. . .

The Lady Vanishes was the third film I’ve seen from Hitchcock’s early British career – the other two being The 39 Steps, which remains one of my favorites of his, and the original The Man Who Knew Too Much, which though not as polished as his later remake of the film, is nonetheless a well done film (plus it features the talents of Peter Lorre). Based on these three films, it’s easy to see why David Selznick was anxious to get Hitchcock to America. Hitchcock was clearly already a master of his craft, and his talent was recognized by both the public and by his peers (Orson Welles allegedly went to see The Lady Vanishes 11 times). In The Lady Vanishes, a young lady named Iris is injured just before boarding a train. Onboard, a kindly, elderly British woman named Miss Froy helps care for Iris, and the two soon become friends. Later, Iris awakes from a nap to find Miss Froy has disappeared from the compartment without a trace. Not only that, but the fellow passengers deny that Miss Froy was ever even on the train. Was Miss Froy a fragment of Iris’s imagination, or is this a carefully constructed conspiracy to cover up the elder woman’s disappearance?

This is an entertaining, quality film. It’s interesting because it has more humor in it than the typical Hitchcock, and in fact, the romance between the male and female leads gives the film several characteristics of a screwball comedy. The blend of supsense and comedy, to me, is indicative of a young (well, younger, he was nearly 40) director still experimenting with his style. He would continue this trend in the coming years, deviating from the work he’s best known for today in order to direct such films as the melodrama Rebecca in 1940 and Mr. and Mrs. Smith, one of his rare comedies,  in 1941.

For all its comedy, however, it’s the mystery of Miss Froy that keeps us interested. As he did in The 39 Steps, Hitchcock relies on what he termed as a “MacGuffin” to move the lady.jpgplot along. This plot device can be loosely defined as that certain thing in a story that is obviously of some importance to the characters, but beyond acting as the motivating factor in the story, the exact form this thing takes is of little relevance to the story. Thus, we never know what’s truly at stake in The Lady Vanishes. Why is it of such importance to know if Miss Froy really exists or not? What broader issues hinge upon being able to answer this question? Beyond some vague notions of international intrigue, the viewer never really learns. Nor is it important. What is important is that these mysteries give Hitchcock the material he needs to unfold his tale, and it turns out to be quite an entertaining tale indeed. . .  


Dog Soldiers (2002)

October 20, 2006

British writer and director Neil Marshall has received a fair bit of attention due to his 2005 sophmore effort The Descent, which was recently released in U.S. theaters and has done pretty well.  dogsold.jpgI haven’t seen The Descent, but I have heard decent things about Marshall and so decided to check out Dog Soldiers – his directorial debut from 2002. It follows a group of military soldiers who are in the Scottish wilderness for a routine exercise when they discover they are being hunted by a pack of ravenous werewolves. While I’m not typically a fan of the creature movie subgenre of horror films, I decided to check it out anyway and was fairly entertained by it.

There’s not a whole lot to say about Dog Soldiers. While usually categorized as horror, it could just as easily be an action film, as it has more fights and explosions than it does scares. It doesn’t have an overly complicated plot, but its energy and surprise twists will likely keep you engaged throughout. Marshall has been coined as a member of the “Splat Pack” – a term describing some of the modern directors making rather violent horror films. I’m not typically a fan of excessive violence, but I honestly didn’t find that to be too much of a problem with this film. There are a few gory scenes, including one rather disturbing one, but overall, it wasn’t as bad as it is in so many other contemporary offerings. In addition, the effects fit with the overall story and plot, so the violence never really feels gratuitous or forced. 

Dog Soldiers isn’t great cinema by any means. Nor is it one I’ll probably watch over and over. It was, however, a decent film to watch when you just want to be idly entertained for a while.